August 2005

Doubtful Pulitzers

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Thanks to rave reviews by critics, including Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, I went to the Walter Kerr Theatre a while ago expecting great things of John Patrick Shanley's new play Doubt--about an aging Catholic nun who suspects sexual impropriety between her parish priest and an eighth-grade boy in the parochial school she heads. Shanley, who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the delightful romantic comedy Moonstruck, is an exceptionally talented writer who knows how to create interesting and credible characters. In Doubt, moreover, he grapples with themes of great moment, not only with the timely issue of pedophilia by Catholic clergymen but also with the much larger existential question of what constitutes doubt or certainty, both in moral judgments that can have dreadful consequences for one's fellow human beings and in religious faith itself. As if that were not enough, he constructs a further layer of complexity: the boy suspected of being the priest's victim happens to be the school's first black student, whose success there may be his one chance to escape a doomed future in the ghetto as the too-sensitive son of a macho, physically abusive father.

Shanley is a masterly dramatist. The scene he creates between the boy's mother and the suspecting nun, Sister Aloysius, is a zinger, as is the final confrontation between Sister Aloysius and the priest, Father Flynn. Moreover, although there are only four characters in the play (the fourth is a trusting and idealistic young nun, struggling through her first year as a teacher in the school--the perfect foil to Sister Aloysius), Shanley succeeds in suggesting an entire community. And the pace of this 90-minute piece (played without intermission) never flags, thanks in no small part to a well-directed cast, superbly led by Cherry Jones and Brían F. O'Byrne.

Yet in the end I left the theater feeling rather cheated, as if I had seen the first and third acts of a truly compelling drama but had missed the second. Doubt's final scene--directly following the explosive confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn--lets us know the outcome of their struggle, but the resolution, which is merely narrated through dialogue, is more like a deus ex machina than a true dramatic denouement. If Shanley's intention is to leave audience members in doubt regarding the moral rectitude of the outcome, he failed with me. It was my sense that he had clearly tipped the scales regarding which character was to be believed (for the sake of readers who have not yet seen the play, I will not say which). In any case, much more satisfying for me than any purported mystery regarding the outcome would have been to see the dramatic conflict between these complex characters played out to the bitter end.

Evidently, I am in the minority, however, as Doubt has been universally praised by critics and has won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I would have sooner granted this year's honor to a play such as Trying (see Notes & Comments, April 2005), however. Albeit less ambitious in scope, it succeeded more fully at what it does, providing what was, for me at any rate, a more rewarding theatrical experience.

That said, let me add that Doubt is a far more substantial drama than the much-lauded Death of a Salesman--the 1949 Pulitzer-prize winner by Arthur Miller, about an aging traveling salesman whose life is built on foolish illusions and ends wretchedly. The encomiums heaped on this work by Miller's eulogists earlier this year (he died on February 11) prompted me to read it recently. If I read or saw it years ago, it made so little impression upon me that I can't remember. Yet the New York Times obituary for Miller called it "a landmark of twentieth-century drama," and the San Francisco Chronicle dubbed it "an American King Lear."

I could not disagree more. In contrast with Shanley's Doubt, all of whose characters evoked my interest and sympathy, only one person in Miller's Salesman did, and it was not the protagonist, Willy Loman, but his long-suffering yet loyal wife, Linda. What was it Aristotle said about the requisite characteristics of a tragic hero?--"Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level." Miller, of course, expressly aimed to defy that dictum by writing a tragedy about the "common man." The reason why his Willy Loman fails to be tragic, however, is not that he is a common man, but rather that he is so weak and foolish a common man that he is bound from the outset to end badly. The excuse Miller offers for him in the play is that he is the inevitable victim of the commercial system on which his livelihood depends. Yet one can easily imagine a man in such circumstances who would manage to retain a measure of personal integrity; who would be a responsible father, rather than indulge his sons to become worthless bums; and who might read a good book instead of cheating on his wife, when he felt lonely and bereft on the road. Such a man would merit one's sympathy if he were to lose his job after a lifetime of conscientious work. But not Willy Loman.

Nor do the shortcomings of "America's King Lear" end there. Miller's poverty of imagination is embarrassingly evident throughout Death of a Salesman in the means he employs to concretize and dramatize his ideas--ranging from the absurdly overblown (Willy's successful older brother makes his fortune in the African diamond mines) to the banally trivial (Willy's son Biff's whistling in the elevator is referred to as if it were the epitome of carefree impropriety in the business world). In a sober reassessment of Miller in the Wall Street Journal shortly after his death, Teachout quoted the late drama critic Kenneth Tynan as writing of Miller's play The Crucible that it "suggests a sensibility blunted by an outraged conscience: it has the over-simplification of poster art." Much the same might be said of Death of a Salesman.

Further reading and viewing:

For an astute reappraisal of Miller by a fellow playwright, see "Willy Loman: Good-bye and Good Riddance," by Travis Stewart (Liberty, May 2005).